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How a Serendipitous Opportunity Might Propel Bullpen Aspirant to the Cardinals



In a Jupiter, Florida setting with All-Star catcher Willson Contreras at bat, manager Oliver Marmol observing behind home plate, and president of baseball operations John Mozeliak closely watching, Cardinals reliever Riley O’Brien took a moment to reflect on his remarkable journey. From his modest two-year stint as a starter-turned-reliever at NAIA’s College of Idaho, O’Brien recalled a pivotal moment on April 23, 2017, when he seized an unexpected opportunity to start against conference powerhouse Lewis-Clark State. This performance, marked by consistently throwing pitches at 95 mph, caught the attention of renowned Rays scout Paul Kirsch, leading to O’Brien’s selection in the eighth round of the 2017 MLB Draft.

Recalling the challenges he faced early in his baseball career, O’Brien mentioned struggling with mechanics during his junior college years, leading him to believe that his baseball journey might be coming to an end. However, a referral from his JUCO coach brought him to the College of Idaho, where he found his stride in his senior year, culminating in a turning-point game against Lewis and Clark State.

Fast forward seven years, and O’Brien, now with the Cardinals, found himself on the mound in a live session against Cardinals hitters. He successfully struck out Contreras and lefty slugger Nolan Gorman, showcasing his skills. The 29-year-old pitcher, acquired by the Cardinals from the Mariners in November, is optimistic that this strong showing is indicative of a successful 2024 season.

O’Brien, who has experienced the Minor Leagues for most of his six-year career, expressed his eagerness to face top-notch hitters in the big leagues. Manager Marmol commended O’Brien’s performance, emphasizing the impressive cut on his fastball and the break on his slider. Contreras, who caught and hit off O’Brien, is keen to see more from the right-hander and emphasized the need for a strong performance in actual games.

O’Brien, known for his late-blooming career, underwent significant growth from high school, growing from 5-foot-3 to 6-foot-3. The Cardinals, looking to enhance their bullpen’s strikeout capabilities, targeted O’Brien in the offseason based on his impressive strikeout numbers in Triple-A Tacoma, where he fanned 86 batters in 55 innings.

With aspirations to secure a spot in the big-league bullpen, O’Brien is focused on attacking hitters and showcasing his fastball and slider combination. He aims to contribute to the Cardinals’ bullpen, which underwent offseason changes to prioritize swing-and-miss stuff. O’Brien’s performance in live sessions has left a positive impression, and he looks forward to demonstrating his skills in actual games.

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